Sunday, February 26, 2012

Three Books of Interest

1. Museums Matter,  by James Cuno

"Since the Enlightenment, the encyclopedic museum has been a repository of human achievement, a reminder, in the midst of our many differences, of the value of such cosmopolitan virtues as tolerance, understanding, and a sense of shared history. But today museums find themselves under attack from critics who argue that they are little more than relics, promoters of Western imperialism and a distorted sense of both history and culture. Could it be that the encyclopedic museum has outlived its usefulness?

With Museums Matter, James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust and former president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, offers a rousing defense of encyclopedic museums and their unparalleled ability to engage, enlighten, and educate the public. Cuno begins by taking us on a brief tour of the modern museum, from the creation of the British Museum—the archetypal encyclopedic collection—to the present, when major museums host millions of visitors annually and play a major role in the cultural lives of their cities. Along the way, he acknowledges the legitimate questions about the role of museums in nation-building and imperialism, but he argues strenuously that even a truly national museum like the Louvre can’t help but open visitors’ eyes and minds to the wide diversity of world cultures and the stunning art that is our common heritage.

Engaging with thinkers such as Edward Said and Martha Nussbaum, and drawing on examples from the politics of India to the destruction of the Bramiyan Buddhas to the history of trade and travel, Cuno makes a case for the encyclopedic museum as a crucial component of contemporary public life, promoting values that are essential in our ever more globalized era.

James Cuno is the president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust. He served as president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago from 2004 until 2011, the Courtauld Institute of Art from 2002 until 2004, and the Harvard University Art Museums from 1991 to 2002.."

2. Stone of Kings, In Search of the Lost Jade of the Maya by Gerard Helferich

During the 20th century, as tomb after tomb was discovered at great Maya sites like Palenque in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala, more such fabulous jade artifacts came to light. The burial chamber of the seventh-century ruler Jasaw Chan K'awiil I, discovered at Tikal in 1962, yielded a headband of emerald-green squares and a jade necklace with beads the size of small apples.

In "Stone of Kings," Gerard Helferich describes not just how the gem achieved such status in the great Mesoamerican civilizations but how one of the original mines was finally located in Guatemala in 1974 by amateur prospectors Jay and Mary Lou Ridinger. That the two fell in love while searching for the mine is a gift for his narrative, and their continuing and dedicated quest for other jade mines over the next 30 years provides a compelling tale.

At times Mr. Helferich becomes a little breathless at the excitement of his own story and ladles on the superlatives. The story is exciting enough in itself; like jade, it needs no embellishment. But his description of the growth of the early Olmec and later Maya civilizations draws on respected academics such as Michael D. Coe, and he rescues the green stone from much of the Indiana Jones hokum that usually surrounds "lost treasure" (one group of rival prospectors even called themselves "the Jade Raiders"). This well-focused and well-told account brings America's most mythologized gemstone into sharp relief." Hugh Thomson,  Online Wall Street Journal

Cities of Gold,  by Bill Yenne

"The Spanish may have rejected jade, but their quest for precious metals was relentless, as Bill Yenne documents in "Cities of Gold." The figures for gold alone are astonishing. A relatively scarce metal in Europe before the conquest of the New World, by 1560 the Americas had supplied Spain with more than 100 tons of gold, much of which went to fund Charles V's European wars. In the following four decades, the Spanish mined so much silver that its price fell some 85%. They might have done better to follow the example of the Vikings, who simply buried much of their loot upon their return from plundering England.
The flood of 16th-century adventurers questing for gold in sites stretching across the Americas, from the U.S. Southwest to Brazil, has been told many times, and Mr. Yenne does not add greatly to previous accounts. Tellers of popular history need an engaging and accessible style, but Mr. Yenne veers so far towards down-home folksiness as occasionally to be risible. "Columbus was following the money," he explains. Another Spanish conquistador is said to have turned to his guide and asked, "Are we there yet?"
This is history as re-imagined by Homer Simpson, and can at times be good knockabout fun: Pizarro is described as "a middle management type" of only average ability—perhaps unfairly, given that while unprincipled and illiterate, he did conquer an Inca empire of many millions with less than 200 men. Many a corporation would be happy to have him on the staff.
Perhaps the most heart-rending story is that of Sir Walter Raleigh, described by Mr. Yenne in an unhappy phrase as England's "signature soldier of fortune." Raleigh was one of the Elizabethan age's most favored sons, an accomplished officer, courtier and writer, before embarking on a quixotic search for gold in Guiana. He was lured by tales that were both economically and anthropologically enticing, telling of a tribe so rich in gold that they sprinkled themselves with its dust when they feasted. Encouraged by Elizabeth I to go in search of this treasure claimed by Spain—although, with her usual caution, she refused actually to finance the expedition—Raleigh was lucky to return alive from the Orinoco. Two decades later, he returned in search of El Dorado, this time to lose both his beloved son's life and, ultimately, his own. The sad tale has been lucidly recounted before by both V.S. Naipaul and the historian John Hemming, neither of whom Mr. Yenne lists in his bibliography.
Along the way, his account does cast interesting sidelong glances at a parallel narrative: the tales of great Amazonian civilizations recounted by the first conquistadors to travel down that river. These accounts were dismissed as fanciful by those who followed years later and found nothing, but archaeologists have recently uncovered evidence of substantial settlements built in wood, not stone, whose builders may have been vulnerable to European diseases and quickly died out after "first contact." As archaeological methods continue to improve, we are likely to learn far more about these "missing civilizations" who built in such perishable conditions—in many ways a fresher and more important history than that of the gold which so lured European adventurers." Hugh Thomson, Online Wall Street Journal

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